How to Pick Out a Paint Sprayer

Paint sprayer spraying white paint on unfinished wall

The Spruce / Margot Cavin

If you have ever painted a house and used a roller or paintbrush, you know it's a long, tedious job, seemingly with no end in sight, especially if you have to do more than one coat. Enter the paint sprayer: This tool can save you time by laying down a wide, even mist of paint by squeezing a trigger.

Navigating the world of paint sprayers can be daunting—from pneumatic to airless to HVLP (high-volume low-pressure)—it's not immediately obvious the one you should choose. And although they have huge pluses, this tool sometimes has drawbacks. If you're not sure whether you need to buy one or if you're better off renting one, this comprehensive guide will help you wade through all these considerations.

What Is a Paint Sprayer?

A paint sprayer is not a common household item, but you can guess what it does from its name. It's a tool used for applying a fine mist of paint from a spray nozzle. It can handle a paint job quicker than a brush or roller and works well over uneven surfaces.

Before Buying a New Paint Sprayer

Before getting one, consider if you need it for a big job, like painting the whole house—inside and out—or only one room. If you plan to paint a room or two, you'll be better off with a roller and a paintbrush.

But, if you're a new do-it-yourself homeowner and plan to do a lot of your home renovations or maintenance, buying a new paint sprayer may be a good investment. It used to be that a paint sprayer of the past cost thousands of dollars and was only a tool fit for a paint professional, but now, the prices have come down considerably, making ownership much more affordable and worthwhile.

A great benefit of paint sprayers is that they allow you to override bumps, gaps, cracks, and other surface imperfections that cause paint rollers or brush problems. Detail work is a little easier with paint sprayers, like corners and trim work on cabinets that are easier to paint with a paint sprayer. A downside is that preparation work for painting with a paint sprayer requires more time than rollers or brushes. Every surface that you will not paint must be covered. Also, you will use more paint in volume than a roller or paintbrush.

Not everyone needs to buy a paint sprayer. If you do not plan on doing your own painting or do not have big plans after one small project, you should consider renting a paint spraying unit, borrowing one, or buying a used spraying unit.

Buying Considerations for a Paint Sprayer

Space

In terms of how much space a paint sprayer can cover, its size decides its volume. A cup gun sprayer is small, usually holding no more than a quart of paint. As you can imagine, it needs constant refilling, especially if you're doing a large paint project. A larger unit handles more significant volumes of paint, usually with a powered siphon that feeds directly into a can or drum of paint. Both can get the job done; however, one is more seamless than the other, with fewer steps and less hassle.

Material

Paint sprayers vary in cost dramatically. Many cheaper sprayers are made of plastic parts that can gunk up and become inoperable if not cleaned immediately after use. They can be harder to clean and break quicker than units made of sturdier stainless steel or metal parts.

In terms of materials you can paint on and paints you can use with sprayers, you can use a paint sprayer for painting any surface, from vinyl or aluminum house siding and walls to wooden furniture and cars. And you can use all types of paint in a sprayer as long as it's the right type for the gun you get. Most sprayers can use latex, water-based paint, acrylic, primers, vinyl, alkyd, lacquer, enamel, high-heat paint, oil-based paint, epoxy, rust-preventive paint, and plastic paint.

Size

Paint sprayers come in different sizes, from small cup sprayers not much larger than a twist-on garden hose spray nozzle to large units hauling an air compressor tank or wheeled cart, the equivalent of the size of an upright vacuum cleaner. The storage space you need depends on the type you get.

Besides varying tank sizes, airless sprayers have various tip sizes that measure the orifice size and the fan size. The orifice size is the hole size, and it measures the gallons per minute that spray through the hole; meanwhile, the fan size measures how many inches wide the spray is when held a foot from the surface.

Features

Handy features on a paint sprayer include adjusting the thickness of the paint coat, the speed, or the spray pattern. Also, with some sprayers, you can attach a garden hose, which makes them easier to flush with water for cleanup.

Portability can make or break your job, so you might want a backpack model or a cart on wheels if you have the option. Handheld models are acceptable but will require constant reloading with paint if you're doing a big project, and they can start to feel heavy if using them for extended lengths of time.

Another consideration is how it's powered; you can plug in with an electric model, get a cordless unit that will need recharging once it's expended or opt for a gas model, which will need to be refilled once it's used up.

Types of Paint Sprayers

The paint sprayer you get should be a good match for how you intend to use it. Paint sprayers start cheap and get expensive fast. Professional painters usually purchase paint sprayers running into the thousands of dollars. Thankfully, this handy tool's prices have decreased, making it more accessible for DIYers. The three main types are an airless paint sprayer, a pneumatic air sprayer, and an HVLP sprayer.

Paint sprayer types also vary by capacity. Cup sprayers hold about a quart of paint; other models have larger reservoirs or siphon paint directly from the paint can or drum. Also, cup sprayers come in two types: gravity feed (cup on the top) and conventional feed (cup on the bottom).

Airless Paint Sprayer

Airless paint sprayers are tricky for novices and are used mainly by skilled DIYers and professionals for large surfaces such as interior walls and house siding, decks, and fences. This motorized sprayer uses pressurized force to atomize the paint; it works well with thick-bodied latex paints. This tool is not ideal for small detail work. If not used correctly, it can cause injury to the user due to its high-pressure output.

Pneumatic Paint Sprayer

To use a pneumatic paint sprayer or air spray gun, you need an air compressor and hose to attach the two. This sprayer applies paint by mixing in the air from the compressor and forcing the mixture through a spray nozzle. This sprayer can apply a greater volume of paint than airless and HVLP sprayers. These sprayers are a precision tool, most often used in complex commercial and industrial situations, such as automotive bodywork. Although you have to watch for overspray, they are suitable for painting furniture and cabinets; these types use more paint than others.

High-Volume Low-Pressure (HVLP) Sprayer

HVLP sprayers come in a cup-type style or cart version, although most HVLP paint sprayers are cup-style since these sprayers are used most for detailed applications that require accuracy and a smooth finish. Most HVLP models allow you to control airflow and paint volume. You can find HVLP units with a built-in compressor or a spray gun attachment for an air compressor unit you already have.

Cost

Paint sprayers come in all price ranges, as low as $50 for a cup-style sprayer to $15 for a pneumatic spray gun to attach to an air compressor to more than $1,000 for a professional model. Cart-style paint sprayers are more expensive than cup-style paint sprayers. Since they are large and bulky, they require more storage room than cup-style sprayers. For about $300 to $400, you can get a great electric airless sprayer on wheels to paint the house exterior or small projects. You can attach a can or bucket of paint to it so it does not need constant refilling.

Airless models start at about $100 at the low end. The cheaper HVLP units run from $60 to about $400, gradually increasing quality and price. Lower-end sprayers are usually handheld, requiring you to refill the reservoir as you work, and they are not as powerful. More features tend to drive up the cost.

How to Choose a Paint Sprayer

Choosing a paint sprayer hinges on several variables, and answering a few questions will undoubtedly point you in the right direction.

What Is the Size and Scope of Your Project?

If you have a large job, like painting an exterior of a house, you can't go wrong with an airless cart-type sprayer. It can handle large volumes of paint quickly. If you already have an air compressor for other projects and lots of painting projects coming down the line, get a pneumatic spray gun attachment and its compatible hose. It can handle most painting jobs.

HVLPs are not ideal for large painting projects, like house exteriors, since they use a lower-output, low-pressure air stream and would take a long time to cover an expansive area. You'd be better off with a paintbrush or roller. However, HVLPs are perfect for smaller projects, like painting a piece of furniture. A small cup paint sprayer is versatile, easier to wield, and can stow away without taking too much space.

How Often Will You Use the Tool?

If you plan on using the paint sprayer often, you will want a sprayer that is easy to clean. Consider getting a model that can be hooked up to a garden hose to make flushing the leftover paint in the paint pump an easier task. If you only plan on using a paint sprayer once, then renting sounds like a better option for you. You can get professional equipment for a fraction of the cost and not worry about storing it away somewhere.

How Detailed Will You Need to Get With Your Paint Spraying?

High-volume, low-pressure (HVLP) paint sprayers are the best for more detailed work, like painting trim, molding, and cabinets. Airless sprayers are not helpful in precision situations. Similarly, a pneumatic gun is the hardest to control due to its overspray, requiring you to mask off entire sections and everything around. You might get more of a mess than you bargained for when using a pneumatic gun—although the automotive industry swears by them.

Cup Gun vs. Cart Sprayers

Cup-style sprayers consist of a gun with a reservoir holding a small amount of paint, usually no more than one quart. The cup either sits at the top of the gun (gravity-feed) or the bottom (siphon or conventional style). Gravity-fed sprayers tend to require less pressure, have less overspray and offer more control. They are also easier to clean up since you don't have to disassemble them to remove the paint. For these reasons, the trend favors gravity-fed over siphon-fed if you're looking at cup sprayers.

Price is one of the best things about cup-style paint sprayers, with many good-quality models available for less than $100. The downside of cup spray guns is that the reservoir depletes quickly. Frequently adding infusions of more paint is a process that gets tedious after a while. Also, this type of sprayer has limitations regarding how steeply you can aim the paint spray.

Cart-style paint sprayers offer two distinct advantages. First, they have a larger reservoir since they can draw from one-gallon and five-gallon paint buckets (this also means that you do not need to clean out a reservoir cup at the end of the workday). Second, they have longer hoses that offer a greater range of mobility. Many cart-style sprayers can support hoses up to 150 linear feet, giving you the ability to keep the paint sprayer in one spot and move around the house as you paint.

Where to Shop

Paint sprayers can be purchased online or in paint stores, hardware stores, or big box home improvement stores.

Buying in-Store

The biggest advantage to buying a paint sprayer in a store is that you get it instantaneously. The biggest disadvantage is that they only carry a few models in stock, so your selection is small—but usually, the most popular models are for sale, helping you eliminate a lot of the guesswork.

Unfortunately, most salespeople are not actual experts on paint sprayers unless you're going to a specialty paint store. Even then, paint store personnel usually know more about paint than the equipment. If you are lucky enough to get a salesperson with expertise, ask about the cleaning procedures with the different models. Also, ask which models have the least clogging issues. If you get a model that continuously clogs, it's useless. Always find out the return policy if you are dissatisfied with the product.

Buying Online

You can buy practically everything online, and paint sprayers are no exception. The critical thing about buying paint sprayers online is their return policy. Indeed, if a product arrives broken or incomplete, you want guarantees that you'll get your product refunded or replaced. Still, if you open the unit, start using it, and notice it's faulty or not working for you, you need assurances that you can send it back. Most manufacturer warranties are up to at least one year. If an online seller or the product manufacturer will not refund or accept returns, look elsewhere.

Where to Buy a Paint Sprayer

Going into a retail store doesn't get you the vast selection that online does; however, it gets you the product immediately. Rest assured, you can find a paint sprayer for your budget and your needs, but be realistic and don't overshoot and splurge for something that you might not use in the foreseeable future.

FAQ
  • Can a beginner use a paint sprayer?

    If you're a novice, you can use a paint sprayer, but you must practice using it before painting the item you plan to paint. Get scrap plywood or scrap materials that match the type of material you plan to paint. Get a feel for handling the gun, and understand the flow rates and thickness of the coverage. See how the spray fans out, look for overspray and see if you notice drips. Practice moving the spray from side to side and look at how the paint spray is affected by moving closer and farther away from the object. Also, wear old clothes that you don't care about getting ruined by paint spray.

  • What size paint spray tips do I need?

    You can get different spray tips for airless and HVLP models. If a pneumatic model offers controls, it is usually adjusted by turning a valve. Get tips that are rated for what you're painting and that will fit your unit. Lacquers, stains, and enamels require a small tip, while heavier paints require a larger spray tip. Paint manufacturers usually list suggested tip sizes with their products.

  • Is it worth getting a paint sprayer?

    Paint sprayers are faster than hand painting. But, not all applications are ideal for paint sprayers. Very intricate detail work, such as small objects, should be hand-painted. Buying a paint sprayer is worth it when you have a large project or many small projects planned out and ready to go. Otherwise, renting a unit is an intelligent choice.